Arizona was one of the NFL’s most surprising teams in 2013, winning ten games but failing to make the postseason in the tough NFC West. They did feast on a supremely favorable schedule in the second half, so maybe expecting a repeat performance to the tune of double digit wins may be extreme, but that’s why we’re here in the first place.
2014 Cardinals Schedule
|1||San Diego Chargers|
|2||@||New York Giants|
|3||San Francisco 49ers|
|10||St. Louis Rams|
|14||Kansas City Chiefs|
|15||@||St. Louis Rams|
|17||@||San Francisco 49ers|
I offer up the usual caveat to take strength of schedule outlooks lightly, but for a team that attempted 36 passes per game in 2013, Arizona doesn’t see many secondaries on their schedule that I’m projecting to be that respectable. The six-week stretch after their week five affair in Denver looks pretty tantalizing on paper and the only real blemish for fantasy is the championship weekend tilt hosting the Seahawks.
In typical Bruce Arians fashion, the Cardinals were solid on offense, but just solid enough to hold middling production. Arizona doesn’t need to have a crazy uptick in efficiency to be a fantasy juggernaut with the skill players they have in-house, but they’ll need to ascend a tick from a season ago to really give us the breakouts we desperately desire from young stars such as Andre Ellington and Michael Floyd.
2013 Cardinals Offense
|RZ TD %||52.0%||20|
We know they’re going to put the ball in the air in a lot, which is why we love Arians in the first place. Through his ten seasons placing his fingerprint on an offense, his splits and snap counts have remained fairly consistent.
[table id=95 /]
Andre Ellington, A Rose or A Ruse?
No back was better than Ellington a season ago in terms of fantasy points per touch when removing touchdowns from the equation. His .65 points per non-touchdown touch were in rarified air, but unfortunately he did only find the end zone four times in his rookie season. Even with his 39 receptions, 66 percent of his fantasy output came from his rushing totals, where he averaged a staggering 5.5 yards per carry. So there’s reason to buy into him being a multi-functional fantasy back.
Just like C.J. Spiller (another former Clemson back) and his lofty yards per carry total in 2012, it’s hard to bank on Ellington being able to duplicate such a number when so much of his production stemmed off long gains. He had eight carries of over 20 or more yards which accounted for 38 percent of total yardage on the ground. He was also generating the bulk of output in favorable running situations. Outside of the Atlanta game, which was inflated by an 80-yard touchdown, he averaged only 3.8 yards per carry in expected running situations. Those big plays count, however, and he’s more than capable of tacking those on going forward, but he does come with some volatility in terms of rushing. The addition of Jared Veldheer and the return of Johnathan Cooper are only plus marks in his favor as well.
Ellington has reportedly been beefing up this offseason in anticipation for a larger role, which can either be looked at as a positive or a negative. Despite Arians’ claims that he would like to get Ellington 25-30 touches per contest, he’s shown reluctance to rely on any one back throughout his career. Over his past ten seasons, only two backs have ever crossed the 250 carry threshold in his offense.
[table id=94 /]
The good news is that Ellington is fairly priced as of now, and on average can be had a full round lower than Gio Bernard, making him a great arbitrage option for those pursuing that type of back. His pass catching ability will always net you a safe floor. You can expect him to improve on his 2.6 receptions per game, which was already at the desired mark you want to target from backs in PPR leagues per game. While he may not be the prototypical type a back I like to own, I have no issue with where Ellington is currently valued today by the community.
Based on everything above, and the player I see Ellington as, I fully expect another back to be involved carrying the football. In 2013, Ellington carried only 54 times on first down, while the recently retired Rashard Mendenhall tallied 131 totes when the downs were reset. The camp battle between Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor will be one to pay attention to.
Taylor was actually selected by this current regime ahead of Ellington, and is built as a clone to that of Mendenhall. His athleticism is extremely poor, but he fits the mold of an Arians power back. In the one game that Ellington missed a season ago, he did total 60 yards on five touches, but only averaged 3.2 yards per carry on his 36 attempts all season long.
Dwyer is still only 25, so he has plenty of life left and is carrying more than 20 pounds on his frame than the aforementioned Taylor. For the short term, I’m banking on Taylor to win out because of the Cards’ initial evaluation of him, but stick a pin in this situation. Ellington had only three carries inside the five-yard line in 2013 and failed to convert any for scores. Mendenhall was the second best back in short yardage touchdown effectiveness in 2013, converting eight of 11 such carries. At worst, one of these two guys is likely to be a scoring vulture.
Will Larry Fitzgerald Pass the Torch in 2014?
Larry Fitzgerald dealt with two different hamstring injuries throughout the season and failed to post a thousand yards receiving for the second consecutive season. He still maintained fantasy relevancy, catching ten touchdowns for the first time since 2009 and posted nine top 24 fantasy weeks.
Gone are the days of monster yardage totals. Turning 31 this August, he’s averaged 12 yards per catch only twice in the past five seasons. He still has at least 70 receptions in seven consecutive seasons and 80 or more in six of those. Father Time is gaining on Fitz, but I’m not ready to bury him heading into 2014, and it’s because the Arians passing game generally runs through the receiver the most slot targets.
[table id=93 /]
*Slot Data Provided By Pro Football Focus
Outside of two seasons when Hines Ward was on his last legs, the leading receiver in an Arians offense has also led the team in slot usage. If there’s one player who has the elite skill set to transition from dominant all around receiver to skilled possession player in his twilight stages, it’s Fitzgerald. I don’t see things being that extreme immediately, but it will extend his career at some point. The other thing that he has going for him is that he’s still the man when it comes to usage in the red zone. Even though his conversion rates fell under his career averages, they were still plenty respectable.
|Inside 10 TGTS||12||105|
Fitz nearly doubled the red zone looks of sophomore sensation Michael Floyd, who converted only two of 14 red zone targets for scores. That was really the only blemish for Floyd in year two, who improved exponentially across the board. He added 20 receptions (65), 479 yards (1,041) and three scores (five) to his rookie totals, making him a prime target to have a monster third year season in 2014.
Floyd really came on strong over the back half of last season, posting three consecutive top 18 weeks during weeks 11-13. He dealt with shoulder and ankle injuries over the second half of 2013, so his rise was most impressive. Our good friends over at RotoViz have a magical tool called the Games Splits App, allowing us to easily decipher how well Floyd performed from week 11 onward.
C.D. Carter tabbed Floyd’s equity back in March and Pat Thorman of Pro Football Focus is ready to put the spotlight on him as a top receiver this season. We here at XN Sports are pretty smitten over Floyd, but if I personally don’t expect Fitz to fall apart, is there still enough to spread around to make both receivers high end fantasy options? It’s a fair question, but it’s happened under Arians before in 2009.
[table id=91 /]
Those are the exact roles that both Floyd and Fitzgerald will be in this season, and the target totals are more than within reason. That season both Holmes and Ward had 25 percent of the team passing targets and finished as fantasy WR2’s. Both Cardinal receivers have far more touchdown ability than either Steeler counterpart, so there’s where you can get the boost of either or both flirting with low end WR1 totals. There could be a point this summer in which Floyd is drafted at his 2014 ceiling, making Fitzgerald the better fantasy buy if that occurs.
One other player also did something noteworthy in that 2009 Steeler offense under Arians.
[table id=92 /]
That was Wallace’s rookie season, a year when he was a third round selection. Arians has always had prototypical shells for what type of receivers he wants in his offense. That’s significant because Arizona just recently selected a player in that same area, with similar abilities in John Brown from Pittsburgh State. Brown is a player that is versatile and can be used creatively, but he can also fly. Matthew Freedman has been singing his praises before anyone else has, and has a thorough breakdown of why it’s significant that Brown fell in the clutches of Arians. The only player in his path is journeyman Ted Ginn, who has done nothing relevant for fantasy in his career, to possibly have an impact as a rookie. For what it’s worth, 2009 was also the best fantasy season we’ve gotten to date from Ben Roethlisberger.
Fellow XN scribe, Josh Collachi just recently brought the spotlight on rookie tight end Troy Niklas, who Arizona selected in the second round. Arians himself mostly uses tight ends to block first, then may catch a few passes. Niklas will likely find the field on early downs as a run blocker first, with Rob Housler in the final year of his contract handling passing downs. Only twice has a tight end caught more than three receiving touchdowns under Arians’ watch over ten seasons, with a high of seven coming from Heath Miller in 2007.
Casonova, Set Up For Success?
If we’re anticipating all of this receiver production, that means Carson Palmer will have to be doing his part. For fantasy, that’s not necessarily true, but he will benefit. Despite attempting 30 or more passes in 14 games last season, Palmer posted just two top 12 weeks for fantasy. That’s the same number as Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Case Keenum, who combined to throw only 44 more passes than him a year ago. To compound matters, he had eight weeks in which he was QB16 or lower.
The same bugaboos for Palmer have always existed. He’s has a dollar arm attached to dime store decision making. He threw 22 interceptions in 2013, and has thrown at least one interception in 42 of his past 57 games played.
It’s not all bad, however for his 2014 outlook. Palmer has played moderately on par against good competition throughout his career, and that’s supported by lateral production in terms of game outcome and unfavorable point spreads. In the Bears Outlook, I made the claim that Jay Cutler was an arbitrage play on three players that were going to be selected within the first 15 picks of fantasy drafts. Well Palmer isn’t far off of that. C.D. Carter just recently labeled Palmer as the Cutler when looking for late round streaming options, and it really is a perfect comparison. Palmer is an arbitrage play on Cutler. In fact, their careers haven’t even been that different, with Palmer actually being slightly better per game passing. Check out their past five seasons using the Career Graphs App available at RotoViz.
The fact that Palmer doesn’t add anything at all with his legs and turns over the football at such a high rate may prevent him from being a consistent high end option, but his outlook isn’t too shabby for a guy that is nearly free to add to your quarterback platoon and one that you have the luxury of cherry picking matchups to start him against. As a play on the success of Floyd, Fitzgerald and Ellington, you could a lot worse looking for scoring elsewhere.
2014 Fantasy Relevant Projections
Best Option to Crash through their projection without injury: Ellington – If current price holds, there’s still a solid shot that he can out produce it if the splash plays turn into trips across the goal line and holds that lofty yards per carry into his second season.
Biggest Risk to fall through their projection: Fitzgerald – Expecting a rebound from a player who has declined over the past two seasons is walking on thin ice. If he were to be surpassed by great lengths by Floyd, it would hardly be shocking.
Best Waiver Wire Option: Brown – He’s not going to be a week to week glue guy on your roster, but ceiling as a rookie could be a poor man’s version of what Cecil Shorts provided owners with in 2012, long plays early that lead to more snaps as the season grows.
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